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OPINION: Domestic spying is shortsighted

The Guardian’s disclosure that the NSA is receiving millions of domestic phone records from Verizon – “including local telephone calls” -- shows just how far off course the Obama administration has drifted in the post 9/11 era. The once secret order published by the Guardian might be one way to keep us safe, but the question should be whether it's the right way.

It isn't. We need solutions that keep America America. We're getting a frightening glimpse into our government’s fascination with collections, a fascination that ultimately will leave us less safe by distorting intelligence investments. All these records -- Verizon might be just the tip of a secret iceberg -- need to be stored somewhere, and that’s going to be expensive for an intelligence community buffeted by budget cuts.

Every dollar spent squirreling away terabytes of telephone metadata is one less dollar spent on human intel operatives and analysts. History tells us those are the people who can keep us safe, especially if they’re surrounded by a vigorous media digging for facts.

It’s worth remembering that 9/11 didn’t happen because of a lack of dots. More than 40 articles in the Presidential Daily Briefs referenced Osama bin Laden in the first eight months of the Bush administration, according to the 9/11 Commission. One brief warned of “suspicious activity” that the FBI saw as “consistent with preparations for hijackings…”

The intelligence system was “blinking red” in the now famous words of then-CIA Director George Tenet. Neither he nor White House counterterrorism coordinator Richard Clarke managed to grab the administration by its figurative lapels and make it listen. By the morning of Sept. 11, our society’s last levers of power had gone unpulled: No one blew the whistle to Congress or to the media.

Policy makers love to say our country’s most important assets are its people and their professional relationships. That’s as true today as in 2001, but you wouldn’t know it by the administration’s priority on big data over people, and by the Justice Department’s targeting of the news media. The administration acts like the framers wanted a free media around just to rewrite press releases.

Here’s where we are today: The potential threats against Americans are diversifying, and yet the journalists who try to dig into those issues and the government’s responses are treated like the enemy. Meanwhile, inside the government, policy makers are relying on the same supply of analysts to make sense of increasingly complex and splintering threats.

Listen to Dawn Meyerriecks, the IC’s now-former acquisition chief: “We’re not going to hire more analysts…But in general, we’re planning on better leveraging the analysts that we have, and using technology to get more value out of the processing.” (Read more from her exit interview with reporters.)

An IC that can barely afford its analysts has managed to spend an undisclosed figure on new cloud infrastructures populated with collections like the metadata turned over by Verizon. It’s impossible to know for sure how much of the IC budget is soaked up by big data. By law, the community releases only its overall annual spending – $75.4 billion in 2012. But billions would be a good guess.

The Obama administration should remember that collections are not intelligence. It takes analysts to make sense of information; independent journalists and their sources to keep politicians and the American people focused; and wisdom at the top to remember the freedoms we’re all working for.


  1. Ben,
    You’re seeing things as a journalist, not an analyst. I’m a European who views American journalism with a hefty degree of scepticism. Often there an all too obvious ‘angle’ or ‘agenda’ even an element of ‘vendetta’ in the reporting. There is an impression at times that the reporter is more important than the story. Journalists have the option to just walk away from a story and find another one – it’s a job.
    An analyst should (and I hope would) simply look at the facts and report things accurately as they are. Only when information from a variety of sources has been fused can a judgement be made. Information only becomes intelligence when it is acted upon correctly.
    Where the information comes from is another argument. Do you believe that we are all living in ‘peacetime’, whatever that is? If not then at some level then there is some type of war going on.
    If I may I will remind you of a quote by Sir Winston Churchill:
    “In time of war, when truth is so precious, it must be attended by a bodyguard of lies…”
    A journalist may seek to ‘expose’ a truth that may in the nation’s best interest remain kept quiet.
    If that information comes from monitoring all of our conversations, then that may be the price we all have to pay for our security. “Domestic Spying” has probably been with us all for decades, whether that is un-American or not is a debate for you guys. But it might just be what’s keeping us all safe.

  2. Where are they keeping the data? Read the WIRED magazine article earlier this year about the 1-1/2 million square foot data collecting site built in Bluffdale, Utah. It’s supposed to go on line this month if everything is on schedule. The data they collect will be sent to one of seven sites in the United States, depending upon the origin of the data. Check it out. In the WIRED article, it was mentioned that what they were doing was illegal, and the interviewer asked why no one was a whistle blower. The answer, everyone was too scared.
    Hummmm … think about the ramifications of that.

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